When I finally got a chance to visit my friend in the hospital, the first thing I thought was, Wow, he is in the exact reverse situation I was in last year. The more I thought about it, the more true it felt.
I got COVID-19. Nothing was visibly wrong with me, but I was having serious problems with my heart, lungs, and some neurological stuff.
My friend was hit by a car. He broke both legs (one in two places), fractured his hip, broke his arm, dislocated his shoulder, chipped his teeth, had facial fractures, and sustained nerve damage to one eye. He also has some large and very dramatic scars and a lot of road rash. Fortunately, he had no internal injuries or brain trauma.
We were both temporarily ruined. His brain and internal organs are fine, while almost the entire structure of his body is trashed. All my limbs are fine, while I’m still not sure if my internal organs will ever be the same. It’s like we had the exact opposite experience.
There are two things we have in common.
My friend was innocently using the crosswalk when he was hit by someone breaking the speed limit, running a red light, and who did not even have a driver’s license. It was a hit and run. It was caught on multiple cameras. The police know who did it but haven’t been able to arrest him yet because he’s on the lam.
I got COVID from someone who left the house with a sore throat, during a pandemic, at a time when that was one of the only confirmed symptoms of the emerging coronavirus.
In both cases, the “other guy” should have known better. Not “could have” but *should* have.
We both have reason to carry a grievance against someone who did us considerable harm when we were following all laws and social norms.
Can you see, though, that my friend has a lot more to complain about than I do?
If you were ever to go to another person and tell them, Hey, thanks, I am gaining personal growth from your tragedy. Thanks for going through all that, it definitely had a purpose because it is meaningful to me - I somehow think they wouldn’t find that very helpful. It probably wouldn’t cheer them up all that much.
My friend and I have other things in common. We both think of ourselves as runners, even though neither of us is going to be running very far in the near future. I told his wife, I’m probably the only person he knows who is slow enough to train with him when he’s ready in two years.
The other thing we have in common is that we are both optimists even under dire scenarios.
We both believe he’ll be running again in two years.
He’s been crushing it in rehab. Model patient in every respect. I doubt he’s complained even once. All his conversation is about going home again and processing paperwork, strictly business. The only things he wanted were some Swedish Fish and some new podcasts to listen to.
I thought about his recovery, recovery from multiple surgeries, the knitting of bones, removal of staples and sutures, healing skin. I guess it will probably take a year for him to recover back to a basic level of functioning, and then another year to rebuild his athletic abilities.
Probably the same for me, post-COVID.
Beginning my second year, I can climb flights of stairs and carry boxes and go on long walks. I don’t have to lie down and rest between putting on articles of clothing.
Hopefully by the end of Year Two I’ll once again be able to do a pull-up or run five miles or do fifty push-ups.
There really is something about comparing my situation to that of my friend that is helpful for me. At least I don’t have metal rods in my legs, I say to myself. At least I don’t have a broken arm. At least I can use both my hands.
At the same time, I wonder if it would help my friend to think of me while he does his physical therapy. At least my heart and lungs are still in good shape, he can think. At least I don’t need an inhaler. At least I’m not on a third course of antibiotics. At least I’m not having tachycardia.
This is the process of creating counterfactuals. Depending on how it’s done, it can either be helpful or it can be messy.
The messy way is along the lines of, Maybe I blew off my PT but at least I don’t smoke.
Is the counterfactual statement helping us find gratitude when it’s impossible, or is it more along the lines of soothing our fractured egos while we continue to annoy ourselves with our own problematic behavior?
In my own life, I have always found perspective in comparing my situation to someone else’s. This is why I like to read memoirs and true crime. No matter what has happened to me, there is always someone whose situation was so bad at some point that I would never want to trade places with them.
Gee, I guess I’m lucky to be me after all.
I know my friend in the hospital is the same stripe as me, because we’ve spent time together having philosophical conversations along these lines. It’s why we like each other.
You know what my friend thinks about being knocked into next week by a hit-and-run driver?
He feels lucky, so lucky.
If he had stepped off the curb a quarter-second earlier - this is a quote - he would have been under that car. There’s no way he would have lived.
I told him, you had a karma force field from all those times you donated blood. He laughed.
When serious bad luck has come your way, which it does sometimes, it’s your choice how to react to it. My friend and I both chose the same attitude, which was to be grateful it wasn’t worse. This is not a requirement, but it is an option.
We could have sat around bewailing our fate, and I can certainly be documented as having indulged in that quite a bit. It just isn’t all that satisfying and it doesn’t change anything. Complaining is often justified. There are, though, other options available to us if we choose to try.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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